For fifteen or more years I taught Creative Writing at the University of Technology. It was a job I mostly loved, and miss sometimes, simply because of the students. The best of them are bursting with a kind of joyful intellect. Writing is an act of optimism; it says that the impossible is worth doing, or worth trying for, anyway. But not just anyone can do it; you need to be clever, and thoughtful, and you need to be a reader. And so the ones who fight their way through to a degree are readers before they are anything else, and they’re there because, like many of us who are readers, they want to write back to the books they’ve read and the writers who wrote them. Their choosing writing is a way of replying. I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll say it again – a book is a letter to another writer.
I’m writing letters to a number of writers, including the New Yorker feuilletonist SJ Perelman, Alice Munro, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Joan Aiken, Anton Chekhov, Jessica Anderson, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson and Tim Winton. But the first book I had published was without question a letter to Helen Garner, and I’m still in conversation with her today.
Garner is known for her shape-shifting – or rather for her genre-shifting. She moves between fiction and non-fiction, making choices about genre in a way that might seem arbitrary to some readers, but to the close reader is most certainly not. Always up for debate is the notion that while a fine fiction writer, Garner does not write novels. This essay is an attempt to engage with this argument, using Garner’s 1992 novel Cosmo Cosmolino as its focus.
Whatever it may be, Cosmo Cosmolino is a substantial work of fiction. Its publication, in the wake of Garner’s foundering relationship with the writer Murray Bail, and on the crest of the wave of Garner’s new interest in Christianity, was met with some very sneering reviews (witness John Nieuwenhuizen’s article in the Australian Book Review, that described Garner’s ‘rush of meaningless hyperprose’). It would be sixteen years before Garner published another novel; partly, perhaps, because of the personal and spiritual upheaval she was experiencing; partly because she was in the process of artistic transformation; partly, maybe, because of the book’s reception. Never idle, in this period she published two non-fiction accounts of court cases, The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004), a collection of previously published and new short stories, My Hard Heart (1998) and two collections of essays, True Stories (1996) and The Feel of Steel (2001).
But let’s return for a moment to those creative writing classes. Most writers will find themselves teaching creative writing at some point in their careers, because few of us can earn our living simply from our writing. We all grow our own methods from our own practice and our own personalities, but I’d say there’s a general consensus among us, and it’s this: simply, that less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.
But a teacher must set exercises – you can’t leave your students alone in the landscape with no bearings, no destination. So I always start with an exercise that I’m currently calling People. It’s embarrassingly simple. I say to my students: I want you to introduce me to a character by showing them in motion – on the way somewhere, doing something, active. It’s the classic fiction teacher’s gambit; I say: you’re not allowed to tell me about them. You have to show them to me. And then I read them this:
Suppose there were a woman once, not long ago or far from here, whose husband came home one night and stood at the door to make a simple statement. Voices were raised. Kitchen utensils struck walls and spewed their contents. So quick! Janet lay on the sofa. What was the point of weeping? He was already gone.
The euphoria which followed lasted, oh, a month. All her senses had perfect pitch. Crowds parted at her approach, old men and boys and babies smiled at her in the street, waitresses spoke to her with a tender address. Milky clouds covered the sky. A warm dry wind blew all day, and the leaves changed colour.
This is not so hard, thought Janet. I can do this. Why do people make a fuss?
For years she had made herself so flexible that she hardly felt a thing. Forgetting was her greatest skill. But now she noticed that the passing of time began to hurt her. Wherever she looked she saw the fleetingness of thing. Mend as she might, clothes wore out. Things broke. Paper came briefly into her possession, was scanned or scribbled on, then screwed up and thrown away. Even the black mist that her fingers left on a café counter evaporated before the cup could reach her lips. It was painful to watch an old woman – and Janet was only forty-five – stumble unshepherded down the back steps of a bus while an energetic young one, admired by all the passengers, bounded aboard through the front, holding out her money. To see a couple of any age lean towards each other across a restaurant table caused Janet’s stomach to fracture like an egg.
She looked at herself in a shop’s long mirror and saw that she had grown crooked. Her right hip was higher than her left, and the opposite side of her top lip had developed, as it were in compensation, a bitter upward twist. If she placed two fingers against the outer point of each cheekbone and gently raised the skin, her jaw-line smoothed out, her upper lip lost its tense and radiating lines, and she saw a version of the girls she had once been; but the only thing that could take the years out of her face now was surgery, and the vanity of that she scorned.
She scorned many things. All she believed in was the physical, the practical, the stoical. Bite the bullet, she said. Plug on, one foot in front of the other and keep going. She had no children. Her family was scattered. She was too proud to take advice or sympathy: to a woman like Janet, nothing is more enfeebling than pity: and so she fell out with all her friends.
It was already years since she had severed herself, with rough strokes, from the demanding work she had been trained for and had arranged her life so that she could earn a living without needing to leave the house more than two or three times a week. She could turn her hand to most things an old-fashioned typewriter was used for. She could review, she could edit, she could sling words around grammatically into sharp little pieces for fashion magazines, weekend colour supplements, and the glossy publications found in the seat pockets of domestic airlines. She was known for keeping a deadline; and if anyone asked, she called herself a journalist.
So she lay on her bed and read. She sat at the table in her upstairs room and tapped the keys. At night she would open the blind and lean out when the pub on the corner of the avenue was closing, and watch the real people going home with gaiety, some singing as they slung their legs over saddles and pedalled away, their fitful dynamo lamps blossoming on the dark surface of the road. And sometimes, now, in the empty house, she heard her own footsteps hurry past on the other side of a wall, her own voice, more girlish, laughing in a closed room. Unwelcome memories of happiness rustled behind her or pounced from doorways. She remembered being the youngest person present, being a student with a job; how it was to tie on an apron and slap together sandwiches in a shop, taking orders, chiacking with the customers; to have sore feet from standing up all day to serve; and later, the surprised pride of being on a payroll and a promotions list, of belonging to a union and knowing where she fitted into her society. She remembered the pleasure of being driven to work on sunny mornings by a bunch of older colleagues from the staffroom, married men with shaven cheeks, viyella shirts, maroon ties: the tonic, laundered smell of the car when she climbed in with her newspaper at the pick-up point near the start of the freeway.
This is a long extract for a piece of journalism, but its length feels necessary to me. It’s necessary in order for the reader to see just what it is Garner does; what she shows us in this two and a half pages that begin the third, longest section of Cosmo Cosmolino. It was David Malouf who described Garner as ‘a natural sprinter’. The sheer careering speed of this passage, our original third person meeting with the protagonist Janet, is phenomenal. This book is full of trams, chattering and chiming their ways down avenues; and the book itself is like a tram. It chatters and chimes and rocks but never leaves the tracks; it speeds absolutely surely through its landscape.
After reading this to my students I simply say – see how much life you can fit into a couple of pages? See how Janet is on the move; look, also, for the physical description, so hard to include in a limited perspective scene, but solved so quickly when Janet ‘looks at herself in a shop’s long mirror’. Notice how active it is, see all the Garneresque verbs: striking, spewing, bounding, slinging, slapping, laughing, blossoming. Severing, scorning, plugging on, singing, editing, chiacking. And hear that amazing Garner opening ‘Suppose there were a woman’. I love this device of Garner’s, though it seems mean to call it a device – this voice, this shout of confidence. I unconsciously imitated this in my own early work, and just recently I found myself beginning a short story with the words, Consider this. This is a classic Garner opening. It says, I’m here, and I’m the one telling you this story. Consider this. It reaches all the way back to Jane Austen who had the same lively, endless energy, who could not just tell you a story. She had always to knock a hole in the walls of her novels, to step out and say, here I am. I am speaking to you. ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,’ says Austen in Mansfield Park, ‘I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’ In other words, I am in charge.
A quick aside. It’s impossible not to notice the difficult feelings Garner stirs up – has always stirred up – in some readers and critics. It seems problematic for some to meet her without a certain bristling, a kind of hostility. This hostility is partly political – and no-one, no writer, has earned the right to go unchallenged. But I do think that the hostility is also because of this bursting out of the narrative. It’s unsettling. We’re unspeakably fortunate to be living in the same era as Helen Garner herself; anyone who has met her will know that this energy, this activity on the page, is an enactment of the woman herself. In person, as on the page, Garner does not dominate or take centre stage; she doesn’t boss or harass or hector. She is never still, never fixed, dealing in no absolutes except for the power of the eye to see, and the power of the pen to record. This restlessness, this energy, brings her hurtling off the page towards the reader just as Austen does. I don’t think everyone likes this.
Most, but not all, readers will know that the long passage I’ve just quoted is not the true beginning of Cosmo Cosmolino. The book begins with two shorter pieces, short stories that are connected to the larger body of the novel. What are they? Are they calved icebergs? They feel like something originally part of the whole, but something that had to break off. Something that had to break off but not float entirely away.
The stories are, first, Recording Angel – introducing us, though in the first person, to Janet, the larger novel’s protagonist. This story is about the past, and memory. Janet’s oldest friend Patrick is about to undergo surgery for a brain tumour. If his brain is changed by this, will she be free of him and his version of her? He is a conservative, loving soul. She is not sure she wants to be the person he is convinced she is. Garner makes couplets – irrepressibly male, like Pope’s or Bacon’s – out of his fixed opinions:
Only Dissatisfied Women become feminists. Lesbians are Heavy Drinkers. Some women Lack the Quality to make a man A Good Wife. Ursula, for example, Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute.
Janet, the I in this story, continues:
Hostile, I objected: ‘She was drinking, for God’s sake. She got a job in a massage parlour.’
‘I think you’d be hard put,’ said Patrick, squaring himself and whitening his nostrils, ‘to draw a distinction between drinking and getting a job in a massage parlour and what I just said.’
This story tells us that the book to come will be about people and their pasts; the terrible struggle it is to both accept your past, and dismiss it. To insist that your past leaves you alone. The novel proper will return to this idea.
The second story, A Vigil, has the same theme. But I confess to less familiarity with it. This is not because of its quality or length, but because of its subject matter. It is the grimmest story I’ve ever read, and I have taught Chekhov’s Ward 6. It’s about Ray, the useless ageing boyfriend of Kim, the daughter of Ursula who was drinking, and got a job in a massage parlour. Ray ignores the fact that Kim is killing herself with a mixture of depression and downers – he uses her solely for sex and to have a bed to sleep in. One day he comes to find her where she usually is, under the covers. Feeling ‘a surge of meanness’ he opens the curtains to let light fall on her unprotected face. He bends down to see her better. ‘The smell hit him. Her mouth, half open, was clogged with vomit and alive with a busy-ness of insects.’ She’s dead. And it gets worse, into the detail of her funeral, and Ray being forced by two dark angels, crooks, or simply crematorium workers, to watch the destruction of her burnt body in the flames of the crematorium. It’s unreadably bleak. It offers no hope, or as I put it earlier, no answers, no absolutes. It is pure punishment, biblical in its awfulness.
It’s an important story, though, because we meet Ray again in the novel itself. Cosmo Cosmolino begins as the story of Janet, who lives alone in her big house, which was once a house of friends, of children, a collective place, a place of communards who ‘departed at the end of the seventies with armloads of collectively purchased kitchenware’. After this it was a house for herself and her husband; since he left, she has been alone. I’ll let Garner take up the story and introduce the second character:
Now consider Maxine, who lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter. Although she had little training and no worldly ambition, she was in the grip of such a powerful urge to make that she barely slept. Ideas came swarming through her, and like many people who labour in the obsession of solitude she lacked the detachment to challenge them; yet when pressed in company she never lost her temper but argued round and round with a serene unshakable courtesy. She expected good of everything, she thought the best of the world and against all evidence was full of trust. Auras, star charts, chakras, the directing of energy and rays, the power of crystals, the moral values of colours: these phenomena were her delight: they guided her.
(Let’s pause a moment to think about Garner’s sentences. Those colons in the last part of that last sentence don’t function like other writers’ do, as the precursor to a list. They’re pauses – deeper than a comma, deeper again than a semi-colon. Again, I find myself under an influence – I am addicted in my own writing to the deep pause of the semi-colon and the deeper pause of the colon. There’s a poetry, a chanting rhythm in all of Garner’s work – but most particularly in Cosmo Cosmolino. She’s championed for her sparseness – I’d like to champion her for her rhythm. Listen to Garner’s reply to an enquiry of mine about her style, about the cadences of her prose – hear the verbs but also the balance, the airy balance of the punctuation: ‘If you knew how hard I work on that. Reading everything out loud again and again. Flipping and hauling and wheeling the clauses this way and that … and always bearing in mind what Fred Astaire said: ‘If it doesn’t look easy, you’re not working hard enough.’)
Ray is our third character. Here he is, some years after Kim’s death, now saved – a Christian, but still down on his luck. He’s been sent – not, as Maxine thinks on meeting him, by God – but by Alby, his older brother, a one-time lover of Janet’s. Alby yearns for the cheerful, homely past of Janet’s house, Sweetpea Mansions, and he’s sent Ray ahead of him to re-establish that world, or so they both hope. When Ray arrives at Sweetpea Mansions he is greeted by Maxine, who has just started work as Janet’s cleaner. Maxine has been looking for a sign; Ray must be it. He has a certain inevitability about him, for someone who is looking for inevitability. Ray, of course, thinks she is Janet – and is hoping to ask her if he can stay.
[He] followed, sniffing her wake with dread, but it was untainted by perfume: it smelt like wood or glue and he wondered why. He wondered too whether this was a car-stripping neighbourhood, whether he should offer to go round the corner to the shop for a couple of pasties, whether he could take a quick look round upstairs by asking to use the toilet, and whether she was the modern angry type of woman – whether he should time his announcement with care, or just open his mouth and blurt it out.
When Janet comes home she’s unable to resist the neediness of both these people; she lets them move in, rent-free, and the three form a kind of household, Maxine moving into the shed with her carpentry and Ray upstairs to one of the empty rooms near Janet’s. And their story is pretty simple – it’s about belief, or faith. Maxine is suffering from an excess of it. Neither Janet nor Ray have enough of it. Ray has Jesus but no love, no happiness, no connection – Maxine, of course, is drowning in connections. Janet has her intellect but nothing else, it seems, no Jesus, no love, no connection; only work, cleverness and stoicism to support her.
There are two things I want to address now, and they’re related; related by the discomfort I mentioned earlier. It’s true that Garner has many thousands of readers who simply love all that she writes; devoted readers. But it’s also true that she provokes other readers to all sorts of anger, disdain, outright antagonism. I’d like to look at this, with Cosmo Cosmolino as our frame, and directly addressing the contested notion that Helen Garner has not been writing novels all this time. This came up when Monkey Grip was published in 1977, with Peter Corris’s famous review that suggested that all Garner had done was publish her ‘private journals’. I sometimes feel for Peter Corris, quoted so often. Most latterly we hear this from Robert Dessaix, in his 2008 review of The Spare Room in the Monthly. Famously, and yet again, Dessaix declared that The Spare Room was not a novel. He went on to say that none of her works of fiction were novels, adding,
They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel … Perhaps [Garner, in her rebuttal of this apparent insult] still (quite understandably) feels a need to cock a snook at those early critics of her work, such as Peter Corris … A real writer, it was implied, writes novels, and a novel is something more sustained, more imagined, more intricately patterned, more whole than the sort of thing Garner writes, however much she trims and transcribes.. … However, Helen Garner is indubitably not just a writer, but one of our most gifted. Whatever sort of writer she is – tribal storyteller, memoirist, reporter, diarist, essayist – nobody’s words on the page command attention quite like hers.
I think many of us will agree with this.
In Dessaix’s definition, a novel ‘is primarily a work of fiction with an architectonic quality to it that transcribed diaries simply don’t have’. He says, ‘Just throwing in a bit of “purple prose”, as she does in Cosmo Cosmolino, won’t do the trick, either.’ Architecture – we hear a lot about it when we hear about novels, and we get taught it in novel-writing classes too. And while I have some sympathy for Dessaix’s point of view – and would love to hear him unpack it at greater length – this is where we part ways. If it’s architecture you want, look at Cosmo Cosmolino, with its many-windowed points of view, its framing narratives of arrival and departure; even the new renovation, the addition, of Recording Angel and A Vigil. Or are they actually outhouses, never knocked down, somehow still supporting the larger structure?
Let me also add that I sometimes feel that people’s discomfort with Helen Garner has much to do with her gender. Think of Geoff Dyer, that notorious and much loved genre-buster, who said this in his interview with the Paris Review:
I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation [between the fiction and the non-fiction]. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all of them as, um, what’s the word? Ah, yes, books. I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others, I would expect they’re pretty much the same.
Not everyone likes Geoff Dyer. But have you ever heard anyone do anything other than celebrate his wicked, charming, thrilling genre-mashing? How daring! How exciting! How refreshing and relaxing! What amazing things he does with words. Do you think we might feel differently if he were a woman?
But to return to the idea of the novel, and what it might actually be. I’m going to go wildly out on a limb here and try for my own definition of it – and this is the second thing I want to talk about. What I want to say is simple, and possibly wrong, and it’s this – what makes a novel a novel is metaphor. Metaphor, central metaphor, is as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it. Just as Janet is shadowed by her shimmering pillar of darkness – the thing that Tim Winton suggested to Garner was The Holy Spirit – the novel is a collection of words shadowed by a larger meaning. Metaphor is meaning – the sense of something larger underneath – a whale shouldering or bumping under the ship of story. Metaphor is, perhaps, belief.
And this is why Cosmo Cosmolino is a novel. I’ve said that sometimes I cleave to Robert Dessaix’s point of view, especially of The Spare Room – a book I loved and have read many times, for pleasure, and to learn about narrative, and about sentences. It lightly engages with a metaphor here and there – most obviously, the mirror that shatters in Helen’s house before Nicola comes to visit. But its concern is reportage, and I say this with the deepest respect, because none report more clearly, more vividly, more engagingly than Helen Garner. In The Children’s Bach the first image is a metaphor – the photograph of Tennyson and his family, an awkward looking group, pinned to the wall at Dexter and Athena’s house, slipping sideways but never quite falling off. The family, the traditional family, never quite coming unstuck. In Honour, the seesaw that carries the weight of the two wives, Kath and Jenny, as the daughter and the husband stand back – shows us a brief moment of balance, understanding between two women who must try to achieve it in their lives. ‘They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless’. Garner knows metaphor and uses it well in all these cases.
But could it be true that in Cosmo Cosmolino we see Garner surrendering to metaphor as her characters do, or try to, to God? Could it be possible that this is a book in which her vaunted and almost miraculous powers of observation gave way, a little, to something larger? Is it possible that in God, in Christianity, Garner found the metaphor her previous books had lacked? And is it possible for those of us who are atheist to accept this without becoming quite so furious with Helen Garner?
Garner and I are friendly, and although I was careful not to ask her too many questions about Cosmo when writing this piece – very aware that each reader writes her own book, that my reading must be mine alone, as yours must be – we did have a couple of exchanges. And the thing she said most bluntly was this:
… when [Cosmo Cosmolino] came out I was stupid enough to agree to an interview with that hard-nosed leftie rationalist Craig McGregor and even stupider to blurt out my strange experience with the shadowy presence. After I’d spoken to him I panicked and called him, naively asked him to cut that part. He says oh don’t worry I hardly even mentioned it. The piece comes out and my mysterious visitor is the backbone of the story. People who hadn’t read the book ran round saying Garner’s got religion etc. One neighbour said with a sort of patronising laugh ‘what you needed was a big hug’. … None of this matters to me now. But it taught me that in Australia you can’t write about experiences of ‘the numinous’ without opening yourself to sneering and cynical laughter. Back then, anyway.
It seems a terrible shame to me that critics, in their rush to disavow something so tasteless, so unfashionable as belief, missed something so rich and deep in Garner’s work. By becoming helpless before God she also became helpless before metaphor. We are the richer for it. We don’t condemn Toni Morrison or Marilynne Robinson or even Herman Melville for their use of biblical metaphor. We try to be respectful of other beliefs, of Islam, of Hinduism, of Aboriginal spirituality. Is there room for us to treat Christianity with similar respect? Could we perhaps banish the sneering and cynical laughter for long enough to read this book as it deserves to be read?
Let’s return now to the narrative. Ray and Maxine have moved in. In her shed, Maxine is busily, even frantically, making – furniture, a cradle, and waiting, waiting for the thing to happen that will change her. She dreams of a baby; in her dream she calls it cosmo, cosmolino; world, little world. She ‘discovers’ that her great change, her great need, is for a baby. Ray gets a job on a building site and refuses all comfort other than his Bible; Janet continues to work and keep herself sealed off from Ray and Maxine. It’s winter, the house is cold, no-one eats together. Ray is a failure, Maxine is drifting, Janet is hiding. But one night Janet decides to cook. Everyone knows that the urge to cook for others comes only when we are close to happiness, or actually happy – there’s something in appetite that speaks of openness to others, and to kindness.
In the bowels of the corner cupboard [Janet] found an old-fashioned oval oven-proof dish, still with a lid, but chipped, stained and encrusted along its edges with nameless scum. She pulled it out and stared at it, tickled by a strange and distant sensation, an almost childish pleasure in its chunky shape and unusual depth. It radiated meaning, like an object from a forgotten dream. She set it on the bench, and with painful slowness, biting on the pen which upstairs in her room flew so readily across the pages, she began to make a list.
[Later] … the dish was slid into the oven and at seven o’clock, when the rain had settled in for the long haul and Janet had run out the front to empty the wet letterbox of junk mail and then upstairs to position saucepans under all the best-known leaks, she wiped down the white table with an Ajaxed rag and set about making it beautiful: an ironed cloth, proper cutlery and crockery for three, glasses with stems, two candle stubs in silver holders, and even the serviettes that the household children, echoing their parents, had called ‘serve-you-rights’, pink linen ones with drawn-thread borders, dragged like the tablecloth from the utter bottom of the ironing basket.
She uncorked the bottle of wine, laid the baguette at an attractive angle across the middle of the cloth, and stood back satisfied.
The result is – nothing. Maxine is late home; she has been at a meeting of a group of people engaged in a pyramid scheme. Soon, she will steal – there’s no other word for it – Ray’s stashed pay, put it into the pyramid scheme and lose the lot. But Maxine doesn’t believe in this future. She believes in the baby she is sure she will have, and the wealth that is sure to come out of the Golden Aeroplane.
No matter. She’s late, the dinner is ruined, she goes to bed, and Janet has given up.
Ray is later still. He’s been to the movies on his own. Janet is lying defeated on the couch. Ray has bought himself a kebab, and meanly she listens to him eat, believing he is alone, and waits until she has finished, and belched, to remind him that he isn’t.
There follows a scene in which two sets of desires compete; Janet’s for some kind of help, some kindness, some redemption; and Ray’s for company – in fact, for the same thing. He works to convert her to Christianity, to drive the devil out of her. He quotes from his book. He demands that she join him in being saved. He pretends that she is the needy one. But all the while, what he really wants, so privately that he can hardly bear to admit to himself, is love. Sex – but really, just kindness, and forgiveness, and love. At the end of the long scene, in the room that still shows the scars of Janet’s last fight with her husband, neither is redeemed, neither is saved, or loved; they leave each other desolate and empty.
But this is not the end. The book ends with the arrival of Alby, Janet’s ex-lover and Ray’s older brother, a striding, crackling version of Ray, full of wicked charm and bullshit. By now Maxine is pregnant, having dreamily made love to Ray while he is asleep and dreaming himself; she has lost his money; but she is unrepentant, believing, full of faith and so glad to meet Alby, so entranced by him. Something in Alby fires the house up again, although he himself is disappointed by it, and sorely so. Life has moved past these people and the house is not what Alby remembered it to be.
In any case, this book is a novel, and it offers, as Garner’s books don’t always, redemption. Maxine transforms into an angel and flies over the house, strewing jonquils on Ray, Janet and Alby. Ray, Janet and Alby turn back to the house – Janet asks them to choose a room. Some kind of connection has finally happened. Each great novel’s job is to deliver redemption in some form, and its tools are narrative and metaphor. In the case of Cosmo Cosmolino, the metaphor is belief; the metaphor is God.
So: belief. Let’s return one last time to our discomfort with Garner’s writing, in general for the unsettling effect it has on us; in particular to Cosmo Cosmolino and its metaphor of belief. Religion or belief is the attempt to impose order where there is none – and surely, fiction is the same thing. In fact, from where I’m standing it’s exactly the same thing. I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo Cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.
Perhaps the reason Robert Dessaix said that Garner is not writing novels, perhaps the reason critics are often made uncomfortable by Garner’s fiction is this: her work is too much like life, and not enough like fiction. Perhaps what lies at the bottom of all this is an uneasiness with material that has been transformed into sentences we all wish we could have written; but not transformed into metaphor. Perhaps Garner has not soothed us, comforted us with metaphor in the way we would like. Perhaps she has not always been capable of that kind of belief. I said that Garner does not deal in absolutes.
But perhaps Cosmo Cosmolino is the one book in which Garner has allowed herself and her readers redemption; deliverance by metaphor. If it it is order we want, if it is a novel we want, perhaps we should shed our horror of the numinous, remind ourselves that we are believers in literature, and look again at this great, strange novel by a very great Australian writer.
This is an edited version of a lecture first delivered at Sydney University on 22 March 2016 as part of Sydney Ideas’ Reading Australian Literature series.